The first great album of 2015 has arrived, and it comes from a duo comprising a bluegrass master and an up-and-coming county vocalist.
Dobro innovator Rob Ickes - 15 time IBMA Dobro Player of the Year and mainstay in Blue Highway, one of bluegrass music's venerable outfits - has paired his talents with the powerful voice of Trey Hensley, a relative unknown commodity who first came to notice when he appeared as a guest vocalist on Blue Highway's album of last year, "The Game."
In his early 20s, Hensley holds experience in his voice many times of that which he should naturally be able to have lived. Not just anyone can take songs from Billy Joe Shaver ("Georgia On a Fast Train,") Stevie Ray Vaughn ("Pride and Joy") and the Waylon Jennings songbook ("There Ain't No Good Chain Gang") and infuse them with the gravitas required. Hensley sings from a place that feels and sounds natural and matches these landmark tunes with a song of his own ("My Way Is The Highway") that, if not their equal, certainly doesn't sound like any poor relation.
Ickes' reso is an ideal foil to Hensley's warm, country baritone. The arrangements are such that Ickes is allowed lead breaks to manipulate the melody with inspired, complementary embellishment, while maintaining the desired and necessary focus of these country songs.
Ickes appears to most enjoy himself on "Pride and Joy," a trio of Merle Haggard songs including "Workin' Man Can't Get Nowhere Today" and the Jimmy Martin-associated title song, a track that features powerful fiddling from Aubrey Haynie.
Instrumentally, the duo contribute a playful rendition of "Raisin' the Dickens" on which Hensley, playing electric guitar, matches Ickes lick for lick. Bluegrass-friendly takes include "Little Cabin on the Hill" and "Lightning," an ode to a bootlegging daddy.
Call it Americana, call it country. Music labels mean less today than ever, and the quality of this first album from Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley provides evidence that nothing matters more than the music.